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First, We Kill All the Chefs


I'm feeling a little ticked off right now, but many of you can probably sympathize. I just spent most of the weekend--a full day and a half--preparing four dishes from three-star French chefs' cookbooks.

All of you who have had the same thing happen to you, raise a hand. Better yet, raise three. That's how many you need to keep a couple of chefs' recipes in the air at the same time.

Of course, this was not my first experience cooking from chefs' cookbooks. It's just that--as they say about childbirth--the memory of the last time had faded enough to make me want to try again.

The last time I'd tried something like this was at a big holiday house party in the mountains with 20 or so friends. I'd volunteered to bring a dish, and what seemed appropriate at the time was shrimp bisque from a recipe by French three-star chef Michel Guerard. Don't ask me why I thought that was a good idea.

The short story is that, after peeling five pounds of shrimp, boiling their shells into a stock and cooking everything with about a cow's worth of cream for several hours, the thing never came together. I kept tasting and cooking, hoping that as it reduced, the flavors would deepen. One friend got so mad waiting for the soup he got in his car and drove back home. I don't know why I didn't.

But that was years ago. I thought I'd give the chefs another try. I gathered a bunch of books by French chefs and started looking for things to cook. My criteria were pretty simple: Nothing by Michel Guerard, no recipes that called for straining something more than once, nothing that needed to be cut into special shapes or arranged in an unnatural way, no demi-glace, nothing that sounded silly (lamb with avocado?), no veal, no foie gras and no lobster (for reasons budgetary rather than ethical).

After a little sorting, I ended up with what seemed like a pretty nice little early spring dinner. From "The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc" (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1987), which I consider the most beautiful chef's cookbook, I picked a radish soup and a gratin of fennel. From "Simply French" (Morrow, 1991), Patricia Wells' book of chef Joel Robuchon recipes, which I consider the most cookable chef's cookbook, a parsley-crusted leg of lamb and a lemon tart.

The radish soup was something I'd always meant to try but had never gotten around to fixing. I fell in love with the photograph the first time I saw it: a Magritte-like image of red radishes against dark earth on one page and, on the other, a bowl of dark green soup with round radishes rising like red moons through creamy clouds.

The fennel gratin seemed a wonderful match for the lamb, and the lemon tart was a natural since my tree is pumping out so much fruit I've taken to accosting strangers on the street, handing them bags and running away.

The first order of business was to determine a plan of action. I went over each recipe, figuring what could be done ahead and what couldn't. The recipe for radish soup specifically said it couldn't be made in advance. The tart pastry, on the other hand, had to rest overnight.

The fennel, too, had a note saying a certain amount of the preparation could be done in advance; it seemed the best place to start. I could braise the fennel, fix the white sauces and, while they cooked, go on to something else.


There was only one problem. While Blanc wanted me to use a dozen bulbs of fennel, I could squeeze only eight into the biggest pot in the house (a 7 1/2-quart cast-iron monster). And I got to thinking: Did it really make sense to fix a dozen bulbs of fennel for only eight people?

But even using only eight bulbs, the amount of liquid was way off. And the timing was, too. The fennel, supposedly done in 30 to 45 minutes, took more than an hour to cook. Although he's undoubtedly a great chef, Blanc has a whimsical sense of measurement.

The white sauce had what initially seemed like some silliness, too, but it turned out to be a great idea. Rather than sauteing onions in butter, stirring in flour and adding milk, Blanc made the butter-flour-milk combination, then added the cooked onions. I remembered how many white sauces I have ruined with scorched onions; it's a lot easier to toss out one bad onion than a whole pot of sauce.

Robuchon-Wells' tart pastry was instructive as well. Rather than quickly cutting the butter into the flour, the recipe calls for creaming the butter and sugar as you would for a cookie recipe. "The butter should be well aerated," Wells writes, "so that the pastry is very crusty."

It came together nicely, and I went to bed still smelling the comforting aroma of braised fennel and secure in the faith that all was well with the world.

The next day I started by preparing some of the individual components for the tart. I made the lemon curd-like filling and candied the grated peel of three more lemons in grenadine for the garnish. I carefully peeled and sectioned eight lemons and poached them, a handful at a time, in sugar syrup.

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